Friday, June 10, 2011

Atheism must never become a weapon

I make no secret of the fact that I am an atheist. As far as I am concerned there is no god. Nor is there any other form of 'higher' being or force that controls my destiny or that of the world. Live and let live. Treat other people as you'd like to be treated yourself - those are the tenets by which I live my life and I don't need some guiding hand in order to be a good person. That said, I'm not a crusading atheist; it's my belief that it's every person's right to believe whatever they choose to believe. Of course, that works both ways. I don't want to be attacked for my lack of belief. Nor do I want to be seen as attacking someone's beliefs simply by the act of not sharing them. I've blogged at length on this subject before, most notably here.

I am opposed to any form of behaviour - based on religious belief or any other kind of prejudiceal viewpoint (racism, sexism, ageism etc.) - that violates another person's human rights. Society has enough restrictions as it is without the imposition of more rules that dictate what we should wear, eat, think or who we should love, marry or be intimate with.

Therefore I find myself delighted by the arrival of the Atheist Alliance International, an amalgamation of 19 free thinking groups and societies from around the world, together with a number of prominent atheist individuals. I'm in total agreement with their aim of 'Making a world of difference with a positive voice for atheism'. However, my support carries a caveat; personal belief, or the lack of it, is exactly that - personal. If history has shown us anything it's that when like-minded individuals form together into groups, it's often at the expense of individuality. 'Groupthink' can set in where individuality is suppressed in favour of commonality and shared goals/beliefs. That's what organised religion is. It also happens to a lesser or greater degree within organisations and businesses. It can be a great thing, focusing people on set targets and 'singing from the same hymn sheet'. It can also be a very bad thing. You've doubtless all seen A few good men. You'll also remember the Stephen Lawrence inquiry and the allegations that the police had a 'canteen culture' of institutional racism. Taken to the Nth degree, do you really believe that every adult German between 1939 and 1945 was evil? Of course they weren't; they just got caught up in Nazi groupthink (Want to know more about groupthink? See here). With commonality of thought and purpose comes power and all it takes is someone charismatic to tap into that power and they can so easily use or misuse it.

If you think that I'm worried over nothing, consider this: According to Phil Zuckerman, who has done some extensive research into atheist demographics around the world, there are millions of us. We are, in fact, the fourth largest 'religious' group on the planet. Here are some of his results, taken from here:

'While polls differ on the questions asked and although the results are admittedly difficult to square with each other, the top twenty-one atheist countries are Sweden (from 46% to 85%), Vietnam (81%), Denmark (from 43% to 80%), Norway (from 31% to 72%), Japan (from 64% to 65%), Czech Republic (from 54% to 61%), Finland (from 28% to 60%), France (from 43% to 54%), South Korea (from 30% to 52%), Estonia (49%), Germany (from 41% to 49%), Russia (from 24% to 48%), Hungary (from 32% to 46%), Netherlands (from 39% to 44%), Britain (from 31% to 44%), Belgium (from 42% 43%), Bulgaria (from 34% to 40%), Slovenia (from 35% to 38%), Israel (from 15% to 37%), Canada (from 19% to 30%) Latvia (from 20% to 29%), and so on down the line. (Phil Zuckerman, 'Atheism: Contemporary Number and Patterns', in Michael Martin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, pp. 47-65.)'

Zuckerman tells us that 'nonbelievers in God as a group come in fourth place after Christianity (2 billion), Islam (1.2 billion), and Hinduism (900 million) in terms of global ranking of commonly held belief systems …' Between 500 million and 750 million humans currently do not believe in God.” [Ibid., pp. 55 and 61]

He also argues that 'high levels of organic atheism are strongly correlated with high levels of societal health.' [Ibid., p. 61] The least religious countries are better off than most of the religious countries. Atheist countries have a higher life expectancy, lower infant mortality, less crime, fewer suicides, fewer homicides, higher literacy, less poverty, greater gender equality, better health care, and so forth. Sam Harris states the obvious about all of the data: 'religion is the most important guarantor of societal health. They also prove, conclusively, that a high level of unbelief need not lead to the fall of civilization.' (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values, p. 147).'

If this is the case then the AAI has the potential to mobilise an extraordinarily large 'army' of followers for its cause. What we must ensure is that this wonderful resource is used in an entirely positive way. Yes, let's attack the school boards that indoctrinate kids with wholly innaccurate views on evolutionary science. Yes, let's tackle anyone who commits violence in the name of a god against those who don't believe. Yes, let's expose any kind of cover-up of illegal or immoral activity inside organised religion. But let us never forget that the vast majority of people with faith are good, kind and friendly people who take comfort from their beliefs and who believe in peace and goodwill to others.

I worry because already I can see a split developing between moderate atheists like me (we have already been labelled 'accommodationists' because we accept that people have the right to believe what they want) and the (innaccurately) named 'New Atheists' who demand that all religion and faith be done away with. The atheist writer Julian Baggini, author of the excellent Very Short Introduction to Atheism, points out that 'the New Atheism' is characterised primarily by its attacks on religion, rather than by its own positive beliefs. Secondly, its exponents seem to think they have a monopoly on reason. It cultivates 'the impression that only through stupidity or crass disregard for reason could anyone be anything other than an atheist.'

He's talking about people like Richard Dawkins - for whom I have nothing but respect as a scientist - and Sam Harris who wrote this in his Letter to a Christian Nation: 'Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, 'atheist' is a term that should not ever exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a 'non astrologer' or a 'non-alchemist'. We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs. An atheist is simply a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (87 percent of the population) claiming to 'never doubt the existence of God' should be obliged to present evidence for his existence - and, indeed, for his BENEVOLENCE, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day.'

I find this all quite inflammatory. Harris doesn't speak for me. I am an atheist but I don't insist that people of faith have to prove to me that god exists. For a start, I know that they can't because I am sure that he/she/it doesn't exist. I'm not interested in what someone else believes so long as they keep their personal beliefs personal. I'm not going to attack my Christian and Muslim and Jewish friends and demand that they offer me proof. They don't try to inflict their beliefs on me and I don't try to convince them that god doesn't exist. That's not 'accommodation', that's tolerance, moderation and mutual respect. And anyway, doesn't demanding that people prove that god exists smack a little of insecurity? I'm sure that there is no god precisely because there is no proof. Why would I demand something that doesn't exist?

I want to live in a world of sanity and reason. I want children to grow up in a world free of intolerance and where fact holds sway over superstition and systems based solely upon belief. I want people to be free of indoctrination to choose their own paths in life. That may lead some to faith and, if it works for them, then why not? As long as they don't try to enforce their beliefs on others or do harm to others in the name of their god(s), then it really shouldn't be an issue. But by the same token, I don't want to see atheism becoming some kind of witch hunt. I would be heartbroken to see atheists exhibiting the same intolerance and discimination as is practised by the minority of religious extremists. There's enough sadness and cruelty and madness in the world without us adding to it. As liberal humanists, I'd like to believe that we're better than that.

So hello and welcome to the Atheist Alliance International. May you do great work. I will be watching your progress with interest.


michelle said...

I very much enjoyed this blog and I agree with you completely. I have been disturbed recently by other athiests resorting to calling people of faith 'stupid' etc, private personal belief or non belief should be respected. No-one should be trying to force their ideas on others.

Debby said...

Intolerance is the root of all evil.

Laura Anderson said...

Great post Stevyn.

Anonymous said...

one of the best posts I've seen on this subject. Hear hear. Live and let live!