Tuesday, 1 June 2010

I Said Atheist Not Anarchist…

By Rachel Surtees (@RVSurtees)

… or irrational being…or angry individual… or rebel… or antagonist… simply, but proudly atheist.

Not long ago I was speaking to someone who runs a Christian spiritual group that I’d heard of previously and thought sounded fairly interesting. I opened the conversation by saying: “I’m an atheist and realise that your organisation is Christian but I’m really interested and wonder if I would be welcome at one of your sessions?”

In case you’re wondering, there was nothing disingenuous about the request. At the risk of sounding like the racist who wheels his black mate Bert out as a stock defence, some of my closest friends are religious. More than that, I love religion. I think it’s one of the most powerful forms of social grouping. It gives people a framework through which to live and love. I of course see and fear its corruptible side, but if we’re honest, religion is only corruptible because humans are.

The response that I got was a ten minute spiel about how this form of spiritual Christianity was so empowering, open and awakening and then an abrupt halt, a pointed look and the following: “to be honest though Rachel, I wouldn’t bother with these labels like atheist, or atheism, they’re unnecessary and limiting. I would just allow yourself to be open. You don’t need labels.”

Open?? Labels?? Limiting?? If asking to join your teaching sessions isn’t open then pray tell, what is? AND, and, atheism is no more of a label than “Christian spirituality”, it’s a belief system, a way of viewing and understanding the world. And I’ve got to tell you, the world I see is beautiful. Evolution and Humanism is beautiful – even when it’s ugly.

Oh the fury, the shock, the fury.

I could be wrong, because I didn’t ask and it has been known, but I assume if I had said: “I’m Jewish, and I know that your organisation is Christian but I’m really interested in it and I wonder if I would be welcome…” I’d wager the -10.47 in my bank account that the answer would have been, “yes absolutely, we’re a really open group who focus on….”

I tell this story not because it’s the exception, but because it was the straw that broke this Rationalist’s back. So tell me, why is atheism such a dirty word? Whatever angle I approach this from, I genuinely don’t get it. Yet so pervasive appears to be the view that I’m starting to think that perhaps I’m missing something.

Alpha is free to advertise its courses on billboards nationwide. By contrast the British Humanist Association causes national outcry because of the sheer audacity of running its own advertising campaign, which is in turn slammed as being pious and preachy.

I would never dare, nor desire, to disrespect someone so deeply as to flippantly declare their belief system as an unnecessary label. It almost seems as though people take it as a challenge to their own views. Or perhaps that atheism is just a casual decision, as though we couldn’t decide between Allah or Buddha so opted for neither.

In case there’s any doubt, that’s not how it happened. I love being part of a Humanist community, I relish being challenged by others at atheist events (think church service without the robes or incense). Angry blog post aside, I have no desire to preach, or attempt to convert anyone to Rational Thought. I’m just tired of the ease with which people dismiss atheism, and so my beliefs, without considering any of the history or knowledge from which this beautiful movement that celebrates humanism arose. Am I wrong?

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  1. I respect believers of any stripe (atheists included) so long as they do not assume an attitude of superior knowledge. After all, there is a huge difference between belief and knowledge and there is nobody alive who can claim the latter in this area.

    Believers are fine, zealots are not, and I'm increasingly confronted by zealous atheists. In the educated, middle class circles in which I move Dawkins inspired atheism has replaced the quasi-spiritualist Agnosticism which seemed to be the default setting for much of the 90’s. Any religious belief to this group is anathema and is often attributed to a lack of education on the part of the believer i.e. if only this poor fool had access to the educational privileges that I did then they would see the error of their ways and abandon this mumbo jumbo.

    This attitude has a tendency to turn many of these atheists into something intolerable, namely smug missionaries. The ad campaign mentioned by Rachel is a horrendous example of this. Run the campaign again when you can definitively tell me there is no God and I’ll be more interested.

    By the way, I direct none of these comments at Rachel. I just wanted to raise my irritation with this tendency and see if anyone else felt the same.

  2. Rachel Surtees1 June 2010 at 23:25

    I agree with you in so far as, the smug / pious stance is kind of an occupational harzard of being "a believer". But, it’s certainly not the norm and isn’t an attitude particular to atheists or atheism.

    I don’t think that it's really possible to be a passive believer, not really. A belief is something that we actively engage with and use as a framework for understanding life. But, all of the atheists that I know are incredibly willing to respect and engage with other people's beliefs. I would never inappropriately volunteer the basis of my value system upon someone, but if in context and pushed, I could happily chat to you for hours about Darwinism, but I’m not being smug, I’m just in awe and wanting to share.

    My experience of the atheists that I know is that our default position is to assume that we won't be preached to, until we're preached to! By contrast, my experience reversed is that dare to breathe the word atheist and the eyes glaze over and there seems to be an almost tangible expectation that you're about to transform into a smug person, clabber up on to your soap box and start screeching about the genius of drone bees.

    There are any number of reasons why this happens, but my theories are that it comes down to two things:

    1) as briefly alluded to in the post, it seems as though people take atheism as a direct challenge to them and their lives because it is so fundamentally opposed. So the “atheist” gets lost within the fear / opposition to atheism.

    And / or

    2) We’re not a distinct group of people in the same way that religious communities can be identified, which makes it more difficult to challenge generalisations (whether positive or negative).

    As an incidental, I don’t get why people thought the ad campaign was smug. At worst it was a tongue in cheek bit of campaigning, and at best gave a previously silenced community a voice. It is the first, and only, explicitly atheist ad campaign in the UK’s history – that’s quite something! And the wording was dictated by ridiculous advertising standards rules, same rulings that created the “Heineken is probably the best beer”… tag line.

  3. I think we have a duty as freethinkers to encourage others to think about why they believe what they believe.
    I do want to convert people to rational thought because (1) religion has proved itself to be dangerous to society and (2) the world is better when you can understand it through science.