Defining yourself by what you don't believe seems pointless
“Muslims are destroying our way of life!” This is not a Daily Mail headline, but something an irate member of the audience yelled at me at a talk I was giving about my book, The Young Atheist’s Handbook. I was taken aback by her anger, but asked her to give me one example, just one, where Muslims had done something that meant her way of life had changed, one example of something Muslims had done that had caused her, personally, any harm, or even any inconvenience. She failed to do so – it was evident to me that she was simply parroting the kind of rhetoric that is not just to be found in the pages of our tabloids, but also amongst many people who wear their atheist identities with pride.
The meeting where I encountered this woman was one of several I’d been invited to speak at by various atheist or “skeptic” groups in the past year or so. I’ve enjoyed most of these events, not least because I was treated with incredible warmth and kindness by strangers who felt that what I had to say resonated with them. Sadly though, I also encountered hostility in places, mostly because I am, according to some, an “accommodationist” – an atheist whose prime objective isn’t to wage all-out war against all religions and their believers, an atheist who doesn’t think it’s productive to go around telling people who believe in God that they’re ignorant, wrong or stupid, an atheist who is full of admiration, respect and love for many people who describe themselves as having some sort of “faith”.
I can’t help but feel that people who expend huge amounts of time and energy trying to convince other people of the non-existence of God are largely wasting their time. It’s easy to criticise religious belief, to point out the irrationality of faith, to show that God is just an idea. Young children can identify for themselves that the religious stories they’re told are inconsistent with the reality they experience, and arrive by themselves at the conclusion that there isn’t really a God. But even in the face of overwhelming evidence that their God is a fiction, many people continue to have “faith” because that’s how their minds work. If, like Mrs Darling in Peter Pan, we could sift through our own thoughts, we’d find we all have some irrational beliefs, dodgy notions that we hold on to despite an absence of evidence, because we want or feel them to be true, not because they are.
The New Atheists have put the arguments against religion in powerful, eloquent terms and have clearly helped many people to be comfortable, even proud, to identify as atheists. A quick search on the internet will reveal hundreds, if not thousands, of people who credit The God Delusion for ridding them of their belief in God. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett are understandably heroic figures to many but I fear that they are not the sort of heroes we need when there are other issues at stake. When there’s a religiously motivated terrorist attack, I’m not sure it’s helpful to attack religion, to vilify believers. When we have children being segregated from each other on the grounds of their parents’ religions, I’m not sure arguments about the non-existence of God are useful. When we want to implement laws and policies that tackle inequality, pointing out the silly, anachronistic rules in ancient religious texts is not how we ensure support from religious people who are on our side.
I have joked in more than one of my public talks that I am far more likely to be friends with someone who believes in God than I am with someone who votes Tory. But the joke is grounded in a truth: there are more important things to consider than whether or not someone has religious faith when choosing not just friends but allies in the battles we face to make the world a better place. If we want to eliminate sexism, racism, homophobia, if we want to address the inequalities and injustices of society, we cannot afford to alienate those with whom we differ only on the question of God.
I owe a debt to the New Atheists – their work has informed my thinking about religion and they have undoubtedly paved the way for people like me to engage in public discourse about atheism. I am immeasurably grateful to one of them in particular – AC Grayling, without whose support I would never have made my own small contribution to atheist literature. In my book, I explain why I call myself an atheist, not an agnostic. At the time of writing it, I was hopeful that the word “atheist” might come to represent positive values, that it might come to signify that those who labelled themselves such were able to lead happy, worthwhile and good lives without a God. But I’m starting to think that identifying as an atheist isn’t terribly useful most of the time. As many others have pointed out, defining yourself in terms of something you don’t believe in seems a bit pointless. I increasingly find myself introducing myself as a humanist, someone with positive views about how the world should be, rather than someone with a rather simplistic view on how the world isn’t.