The big red ‘A’

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…

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11 Responses to The big red ‘A’

  1. Atheism is easy in the UK, but it’s genuinely difficult elsewhere. In the USA, there’s a single member of congress willing to identify themselves as an atheist, and he only did that last year. Being an atheist in America can cost you your career.

    Now, I don’t particularly like Dawkins or think he’s a good spokesperson for atheism. But we’re lucky that our beliefs (or lack of them) has a complete lack of negative consequences. Atheism in America (and elsewhere) is on the receiving end of much more prejudice. And that’s why I have the big red ‘A’ on my blog – not because I think my atheism is particularly worth crowing about, but to show support for those who can’t crow about it even if they wanted to.

  2. mortjo says:

    Good post. I’ll be honest here, I never really thought about it from my own perspective, more for the ’cause’ if you like.
    It’s just about normalising Atheism, increasing it’s acceptance in society, and supporting those for whom being an Atheist has pretty serious consequences.
    That’s not to say I’d walk down the road in one of them bloody awful T-shirts on the campaign website, good grief no. But on my blog I’m happy to support the campaign, moreover it tells any passing reader instantly that I’ll not stand for any religious truck on my blog, thankyouverymuchsir. :)

  3. Alex says:

    In a potentially insensitive word, amen. I’m both a Taoist and an atheist (long story), and I don’t feel the need to have a permanent advertisement for either on my blog.
    Forgive me for anticipating a coming firestorm in this comments section, though. You know what they say about religion and politics…

  4. Cellar_Door says:

    I was raised Church of England but bailed out as soon as I was old enough to think for myself. I sometimes wish I was able to have faith, as it seems to bring some people comfort. But I’m far too cynical/skeptical/scientifically minded. That said, religion has no impact on me or my life at the moment, so I don’t feel the need to publically proclaim myself either way. The idea that atheists are morally bankrupt, godless heathens who are going to hell irks me somewhat though. You don’t need to believe in a god to have a conscience and know right from wrong. But since I don’t believe in hell, it doesn’t really matter. Live and let live, everyone…peace out…

  5. cb says:

    I’m pretty much with Cellar_Door. I was raised as a Jew but a secular one where the cultural aspect was far more important than the religious part. I think belief is a personal thing though for the most part and whether someone has a belief in a religious framework or not has no part in my consideration of that individual as a human being. Indeed, I have a lot of respect for aetheism and am probably more than a little sympathetic to the position.
    Noone should make a judgement or a decision about others on the basis of religion though or lack of it.

  6. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Hi everyone, and thanks for the comments.

    experimental chimp – as i say, i have a great deal of respect for atheists like you who come to a different conclusion from me. :o)

    Being an atheist in America can cost you your career.

    I did a quick google search (USA fired for atheism) and i only found reference to two cases, one of which (involving Carletta Sims) was settled out-of-court in 2004, and another (involving Cacy Cantwell) which seems to be ongoing. (There have been other cases of elected or publicly-appointed officials resigning after coming under pressure for their lack of faith.)

    Carletta Sims was, officially, fired for stirring up dissent in the workplace, not atheism. Since she chose to settle out of court, no judgement has been made on the issue of whether it was her atheism, or the manner in which she raised and discussed it with her co-workers, that was the root cause of her dismissal. Cacy Cantwell’s situation seems more obviously concerning, in that his employer objected to his ‘living in sin’ on company property, and had, allegedly, indicated that Mr Cantwell’s atheism meant ‘we might need to part ways.’

    Even if we accept that only 1 in every 1000 cases of dismissal for atheism received enough media coverage to feature prominently on google (and that is, i would argue, an extremely generous estimate – i would be surprised if it were actually as few as 1 in 5) that still indicates that only 0.00066% of the US population has been fired for being atheist. To me, these do not seem adequate grounds for deciding that, for the majority of Americans, being fired for being an atheist is a reasonable concern.

    There has been, i noticed, quite an amount of blog comment on both cases, however. This is precisely what i would expect to find were atheist campaigners attempting to manufacture a significant ‘civil rights’ issue where none in fact exists. This method of campaigning is, of course, the one i objected to under the heading ‘Militancy breeds militancy’ above.

    mortjo – i guess i would argue that, for me, the ’cause’ isn’t sufficiently important to warrant placing the badge in my sidebar. But, as with the experimental chimp, i have great respect for people who come to a different conclusion. :o)

    Alex – i have to be honest, i’m troubled by your saying you are both an atheist and a taoist, since, for me, atheism implies refusing to accept as true that for which there is no evidence, and taoism (based on my very limited knowledge of it) implies belief in the persistence of spiritual life after physical death. There is, i think, a danger in assuming that atheism means only resistance to organised religion – my atheism means i am not religious, but it also means i am not a spiritualist (in any sense of the word) either. Of course, you may mean taoism simply as a secular philosophical position, in which case our potential disagreement would very largely melt away. :o)

    I’m hoping the firestorm doesn’t appear, because my regular readers are all reasonable people, and so can disagree with me, and each other, in a reasonable way. I have no problem with there being widespread disagreement in this thread (or any other), so long as we all express ourselves politely and reasonably. I hope i fall on the right side of that line myself, but that’s, of course, for other people to judge.

    Cellar_Door – I was raised anglican myself, and my mum and dad remained devoted christians to the ends of their days. If i were being honest, i think the knowledge of my folks and their friends informs my unwillingness to be stridently atheistic. I know that there are large numbers of religious people who aren’t reactionary bigots, and would be truly horrified by the idea that their beliefs should be imposed on people who don’t share them. Mind you, that dosen’t stop me from trying to persuade them to recognise the truth, or supporting the campaign for the abolition of faith schools, or being pleased whenever i hear about the decline in faith… ;o)

    cb – i think there are two aspects to the ‘debate’ about religion. I think most atheists are comfortable with the idea that people can live their own lives according to whatever belief system they choose, so long as they don’t try and impose those beliefs on other people, or force them to live their lives as though they shared those beliefs. (Although, of course, lots of atheists would reserve the right, which they would also allow to religionists, to try and change people’s minds.) There is a separate issue about religion intruding into public cultural space, whether in terms of education, or patronising little homillies being broadcast in the middle of the Today programme, or bishops having an (albeit tenuous) input into political decisions via their status within the house of lords. Most atheists (certainly this one…) would, i think, oppose that.

  7. aethelreadtheunread says:

    cb – i’ve just realised you were the only person who didn’t get a smiley face in my last comment. It was nothing personal, honest. :o)

  8. I think a lot of the discrimination against atheists happens below the radar, and much more in small-town America than in the big cities. I also think a lot of atheists in small-town America frame their beliefs as being “not religious” It’s more of a pervasive thing. But there’s only ever been a single major elected official who was willing to identify as atheist – Pete Stark, who came out as an atheist in January 2007. By contrast there are currently two openly gay members of congress and there’s been others previously; the first was Gerry Studds who was outed in 1983 and served until 1997. There’s far more gay politicians at state level than there are atheists.

    Discrimination against atheists is different to discrimination against gay people. Atheists are much less likely to experience violence. I don’t think many atheists are fired for being atheists, either. But I’m pretty sure that there’s a bias against atheists in some areas of the US, which results in worse career prospects and plays a part in legal proceedings and custody cases. Also, atheists who do stand up for their beliefs (eg. actively arguing against the blurring of lines between church and state in schools, courtrooms and legislatures) face serious opposition and some amount of hatred.

    But yeah, I understand your point of view, too.

  9. Alex says:

    >>you may mean taoism simply as a secular philosophical position
    Exactly so. I think Laozi was a smart guy but he wasn’t a god, Tao is an artificial construct to catalogue the human experience, and I don’t feel the need to do any ritual bowing to altars.
    Unfortunately these days ‘Taoism’ has a rather fuzzy definition, whether you want to use it to mean the communist puppets like the China Taoist Association, innumerable Chinese folk religious practices, the Quanzhen School, somewhat saner re-interpretations of it, or in my case the purely philosophical aspect. Really I ought to have been clearer.

  10. Zoe says:

    Hey good for you Aethelread. You managed to tackle a difficult and contentious subject without alienating either ‘side’. As you say, ‘them and us’ is the problem, not the solution.

    Where I stand is, I have a spiritual life. I do not follow any organised religion. I believe that many of us do what gets us through the night, but I instinctively distrust all forms of fundamentalism. For me religion is a very private matter.

    So thank you for deciding NOT to be a militant atheist and displaying the A. You are a credit to atheists everywhere!;)

  11. Medivalia says:

    “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. “—wonderful way of explaining an atheist belief. Atheists are not necessarily anti-god or anti-religion. I would believe something exists if I saw that it exists. I admit though, that my belief that the Catholic religion gets you baptized and confirmed under the age of 18 so you have no say in the matter and they can add you to their population count is anti-religion and probably factors in to my atheism. But my atheist belief is based on the lack of convincing evidence that ‘something’ exists, the multiple other belief systems out there currently, and the many belief systems from the past that no longer exist. I would rather live my life actively believing I am the only one who makes my life happen and not wait for help from a god.

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