If, like me, you spend more time than is probably good for you ambling around the blogosphere, you’ve probably noticed that quite a few blogs are including a badge which consists of a stylised red A. I think I first noticed it on Mentally Interesting: The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive, and I’ve seen it since then on Experimental Chimp and Twice As Bright (which, unlike the others, isn’t on my blogroll yet, but will be as soon as I get round to updating it – it’s an excellent blog, and you really should read it, if you don’t already). It may well be on several other of the blogs I read regularly as well, but I’ve only noticed it on those ones so far.
The point of the big red A is to indicate that the blogger concerned is an atheist. The badge links to The Out Campaign, which is supported by the media-appointed Atheist-in-Chief, Richard Dawkins. The campaign is clearly modelling itself on an aspect of the gay rights movement of the 70s and 80s, namely the idea that atheists are more common than is popularly supposed, and that if we’re all out and proud then it will be much harder to ignore us and pretend that we’re just a small bunch of militant activists.
Now, as most people reading this will know, I’m gay. I’ve written before about how I think the willingness of hundreds of thousands of gay people to be open about their sexuality is one of the main reasons the gay rights agenda has been so strikingly (and rapidly) successful. I think a similar campaign has a reasonable chance of being successful in encouraging atheists to make a stand, and hopefully have our concerns taken seriously. I certainly hope that it succeeds in over-turning the presumption of religiosity that exists at the moment. As an atheist myself, I hate the way lots of people say ‘Britain is a christian country’ when most people living here only go to church for social reasons – i.e. births, marriages and deaths.
You’d think, therefore, that I’d be a natural candidate for having the badge in my sidebar, but I don’t have. Here’s why.
1) – Why would I single out religious faith?
If I put a badge in my sidebar saying I don’t believe in the theories of existence that postulate the existence of god, why wouldn’t I also have one saying I don’t believe in the theories of Milton Friedman, or Sigmund Freud? All three faiths are, as far as I’m concerned, equally ludicrous, and all three have caused great harm and suffering in the world. I am utterly unconvinced that religion is the greatest threat to humanity. I would give that ‘accolade’ to unregulated free-market economics, which relies on poverty to function, and fuels an ever-increasing demand for increasingly scarce natural resources. It’ll be Donald Trump and Richard Branson who destroy us, not people who dress up in funny clothes and think the Great Sky Spirit gets cross when they have a wank.
2) – My atheism doesn’t define me
My absence of faith isn’t itself an article of faith. As far as I am concerned, religious belief is utterly irrelevant to my life and therefore, by simple extension of logic, the absence of faith is equally irrelevant.
3) – Atheism isn’t an alternative belief system
Religions usually require public declarations of faith from their adherents. Atheism, because it isn’t a faith, doesn’t. I haven’t ever said, and won’t ever say, ‘I don’t believe in god.’ I do say ‘the evidence for the existence of god is either false, or has been misinterpreted.’ If the evidence were to change – if god suddenly arrived from heaven trailing clouds in a blaze of glory – my opinion would change. This is, as far as this non-scientist understands it, the heart of the scientific method, and it’s at the heart of my atheism.
To engage with religionists by rallying behind icons and standardised statements is to meet them on their own ground. That’s a mistake, because it suggests that the ‘debate’ between faith and atheism is an actual debate. It isn’t. Faith has nothing on its side except faith itself. Everything else belongs, pending some new and wholly surprising evidence, to atheism. The solution to the problem of religious faith is not to set up an alternative belief system where people publicly, and in a ritualised way, declare their lack of faith. The solution is to set out, rationally and reasonably, the case against religion.
4) – Militancy breeds militancy
It’s a truism that those who are most keen to further a militant cause try to stir up a ‘them and us’ feeling. The ‘them and us’ feeling is not, for the most part, successful in persuading moderate opinion. It’s designed to keep extremism high up the agenda, encourage people to keep their minds closed, and keep the debate from moving forward. By attempting to match them in stridency and vehemence, atheists actually help religionists to shore up their own power base. In the process of doing so, they also abandon their own claims to a calm and reasonable rationality, which is, for me, the major emotional (as opposed to intellectual) appeal of atheism.
5) – The situation isn’t as desperate as it may appear
It seems to me that many atheists are moved to become more and more vehement because they are concerned that science is in some way ‘losing the battle’ with religion. I have heard and read Richard Dawkins (a man for whom I have a great deal of respect and admiration) say as much several times, most recently this last weekend. This is, it seems to me, a mistaken analysis.
Firstly, science can never ‘lose’ to religion because science is true (or, more accurately, is the ongoing search for truth) and religion is false. The only way science can ‘lose’ is in terms of numbers of adherents. Religions have to measure their success or failure by the number of followers they have, because, failing direct communication with the dead, they have no other way of proving they are ‘right’. Science doesn’t need to do this because it has other, empirical, methods for measuring its success. In any objective analysis, science will always ‘beat’ religion.
Secondly, religion isn’t even winning the numbers battle. In the UK, there has been a consistent decline in church attendance for many decades, and it is projected to continue. A 1990 survey found that 8% of Americans did not follow any organised religion; by 2001 that had increased to 14.1%. (Source here.) For the first time since the selection of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the evangelical right was unable in 2008 to ensure that its preferred candidate became the Republican nominee in the presidential election. It is, of course, true that many of those who no longer worship regularly would still describe themselves as fundamentally religious, but these kinds of ‘soft’ followers are extremely unlikely to be involved in any campaign against science.
There is a separate issue regarding the decline of the sciences as an area of academic study. This is probably caused by a combination of factors, and I would argue that amongst them is a growing perception that science has already answered all the ‘big questions’ – where did we come from? where are we going? what is the world/ universe like? In other words, the decline in the numbers of people studying science academically is probably in part a reflection of the fact that people are now so familiar with scientific explanations that they (mistakenly) believe that there is little left to discover. The academic decline of science is, very likely, an unfortunate side-effect of its success as a popular ‘narrative,’ not its imminent failure.
Anyway, that’s why I have decided, on balance, that the big, red atheist ‘A’ isn’t for me. But this is only my opinion, and I have a lot of respect for other atheists who come to a different conclusion. That’s one of the great things about being an atheist after all – we can disagree with each other without having to call it a schism and start up a holy war…