Editorial: Hope for heathens
Without religion, can atheists have hope?
One the great promises of religion is hope. Faiths appeal directly to the emotional need for comfort, and offer an array of blandishments to tempt the anxious and distraught. Worried about why bad things happen? Be assured, it’s all part of His plan. Feeling unloved? Don’t worry, we are all God’s children. And of course religion has the ultimate trump card solution for despair and the terror of death: the promise of eternal life in the hereafter. No such consolations, of course, are available to the non-believer. So does giving up God mean we also have to give up hope? In our cover story the philosopher Julian Baggini goes searching for the bright side of godlessness.
In the absence of belief, some people choose to place their faith in science. It may be comforting to believe that science can, eventually, answer all our questions, but isn’t this, as the superstar philosopher Bruno Latour argues provocatively in his book On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, merely to substitute one kind of overarching faith for another? Jonathan Rée grapples with Latour’s thesis.
While not all non-believers are sure that science alone will provide a better future, some are convinced. With the help of science journalist Adam Smith and cartoonist Martin Rowson we offer a guide to the different groups who are imagining a future beyond the limitations of the human body, beyond disease and ignorance, perhaps even beyond death itself. Meet the Tomorrow People.
Although perhaps they need not bother, as there is already a world that has managed to use science to enhance human capabilities and eliminate want – it’s called The Culture and features in the science fiction books of the prolific novelist Iain Banks, who submits to this issue’s Q&A.
Perhaps a properly humanist hope is one focused on realistic real-world goals and the achievements of real human beings. We profile two such individuals in this issue. Sports journalist Musa Okwonga meets basketball player John Amaechi, who after a successful career in America’s National Basketball Association became the first ever major league sportsman to come out as gay. Now working as a psychologist and motivational speaker on both sides of the Atlantic, Amaechi is also a fresh and uncompromising new voice of atheism.
One place where hope might seem in very short supply is on death row, especially for those who are innocent of the crimes of which they were convicted. Clive Stafford Smith has been bringing the hope of justice to such people for three decades, saving more than 300 from execution. His new book highlights the case of Kris Maharaj, who has been on Florida’s death row for a quarter of a century for a crime he did not commit. He talks to us about the inherent flaws in the system that allow such injustice.
Another day, another attack on secularism. But this one comes from a rather surprising source – New Humanist itself. Read Richard Smyth’s broadside against secularism – and see if he persuades you that the insistence that believers leave their faith at home is patronising and undemocratic.
The fraught nature of the secularism debate has recently crystallised around a series of concrete dilemmas: should the Church of England allow gay marriage? Should the wearing of religious symbols at work be tolerated? Should religious sensitivities be protected from office? To help you negotiate your way through this ethical thicket we present Kenan Malik’s step-by-step guide to the ethics of tolerance.
Finally, we visit a thicket of a different kind, as Sally Feldman asks how the recent revival of the Snow White myth, in films such as Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, reflects our current attitudes to women.