Friday, 22 April 2011

"New atheism" and my accidental part in its uprise

There's a lot of bad things being said about "new atheism", the recent global wave of godless people openly and vocally declaring their atheism and/or criticising religion. While there's always abrasive individuals in every movement, personally I don't like the label "new atheism" and I think most of the criticism is unjustified.

My contribution to this new world was accidental.

In 2005 I set up the University of Bristol Atheist, Agnostic and Secular Society. Actually there were 5 of us who set it up, but the reason it happened was because one day, after seeing the Christian Union preaching and Muslim society declaring the "truth", I thought it would be hilarious if there was an atheist society.

Can you imagine it? Hilarious!

Very rapidly, this bizarre daydream turned into a credible concept, and after a lot of DIY organising (and a fair bit of drinking) a genuine, credited, univeristy society was born. Sadly, right from the start - even when I was just putting up posters looking for people who'd be interested - I got a reaction which was by far mostly negative.

The responses I received then were similar to the backlash against "new atheism" today. It went from complete incomprehension, e.g.:
"You can't make a society for something you don't believe in"
"That's the most stupid thing I've heard"
to outright hostility, e.g.
"That's wrong, you shouldn't be allowed to do that!"
"That's so disrespectful. I'm not religious but I find that offensive"
and even more colourful language than that. (Incidentally that last quote always cracks me up - comedy gold.)

It seemed to me as a child, and still seems the case today, that it's fine to shout about your identity and opinions on ethics, fertilised embryos, the afterlife, angels/faeries/ghosts/elves etc. as long as you have a religion. I think the default opinion of society is that having religious beliefs is part of your culture and heritage, which must never be questionned, even if they're illogical (how many gods would you like on your mystical cosmology today?) or just plain wrong (sharia law anyone?). People who don't have religious beliefs are seen as apathetic and clearly don't have any convictions about spirituality, ethics, or, well, anything at all.

The identity of a conscious, deliberate, open atheist seems to scare and aggravate a lot of people.

Like all societies, the UOB AASS has taken on its own life and I haven't been part of it since leaving university in 2006. It's very tempting to still think of it as my baby, but the reality is it's now run by - and composed of - completely different people who have their own views on its role. But the aims I had at the time, and the ones we agreed on when setting it up, were simple:
  • A social group for atheists to meet, share activities, and basically hang out
  • A campaigning platform for secularism and secularist values
I see both of these as perfectly acceptable purposes. They differ, and I don't like the idea of them getting mixed up - I'm not a fan of evangelising atheism, as I don't see it as anyone's job to tell anyone what to believe (even if I sometimes think about standing on the street like a preacher and asking people politely if they've considered atheism). But it's not strange that they come under the same banner in the same organised group.

These purposes have been mirrored in the rise of "new atheism". Atheists around the world want to connect, organise and hang out in a global sense, and rationalists want connected groups to campaign on secular values. As I say they're not identical aims, but there is a healthy overlap.

Unfortunately this vocalness and organising has given rise to a backlash. It's even added strength to the comment "Isn't atheism just another religion?" No. Atheism is a religious choice, but it is far from a religion. People who don't believe in god organising and forming collectives to a) hang out and/or b) criticise religion is not even on the same page as refuting evolution as science or telling people what to do on which days of the week.

More specifically, you'll notice that Christians do not have 2 religions - one for believing in God, one for not believing in Allah.

Unlike many people's assumptions, atheists are not apathetic - we are people who have made a distinct choice. There are even agnostics who've made a deliberate, conscious decision to be agnostic. If you thought an atheist society was strange, just wait for the United People's Front of Agnosticism. It may only be a hardcore punk band's name now. But it's just a matter of time before it's a genuine militant organisation.

My mature, adult self is a secularist. We should all have the freedom to choose our religion, no matter how batshit crazy it is, because we don't deserve to have anyone else's batshit crazy religion forced on us by anyone, whether by government, corporations or through education. That includes the freedom to choose no religion, and the freedom to say so, even if ideally the world would be a calmer and better place if no-one shouted about it.

My mature self is also a calm, happy atheist, knowing that people of all religious choices are treated equally. Unfortunately this isn't the case.

It's hard to see the world's fundamentalist religious calming down any time soon, just like Catholics won't be endorsing condoms or accepting homosexuality, and Islamists in Somalia aren't going to stop stoning women for adultery, and Saudi Arabia isn't going to just give up imprisoning and lashing female victims of rape. It ain't going to happen, not any time soon, and certainly not by itself.
These are extreme examples, but not only are they real examples, there are many examples of petty religious privilege in countries all over the world, and these deserve challenging too.

For me, atheism is a positive, liberating choice, and organised atheism is a positive, progressive movement. But freedom to choose religion also comes with the freedom to criticise religion and criticise religious privilege. And when you get a loose movement of people expressing their identity, who don't have martyrs or rituals or hierarchy, it's inevitably going to involve criticism of religious nonsense.

For those people scared, disgusted, dismissive of, and angered by vocal, open atheism, I'm afraid we're just one new group hundreds of years late to the party.

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