The scathing slurs of my fellow atheists make me despair
Five years ago I launched the Atheist Bus Campaign, but today I'm more focused on kindness than on non-belief, says Ariane Sherine
I know many, many atheists. If I had to use three words to describe them, I would choose “funny”, “intelligent” and “frustrated”. My Facebook timeline is full of examples of the latter attribute: atheists describing religious people as “idiots”, “morons”, “imbeciles” and the occasional “douchebag” (a lot of my 5,000 Facebook friends are American).
Five years ago, I would have been right up there with them in branding all religious people stupid. After all, how could anyone believe in the monotheistic God despite all the scientific evidence to disprove his existence? How could religious people think contraception, gay rights or women’s reproductive rights were issues worth fighting against?
I still think that the more rational the world is, the better, and am heartened by any sign that it is becoming less religious. But the scathing, often cruel slurs of my fellow atheists make me despair. The question I ask more often these days is: how can anyone think that calling religious people names is going to sway them from their firmly held convictions?
For religion is not without beauty. It is often a mélange of lovely ideas, illogical statements, and deeply problematic tenets. If a person is attracted to religion because of its beautiful ideas, and because they want to be a better person, then an atheist being caustic and withering is not going to sway them from their faith; it is merely going to confirm to them that atheism is not for them. Who would want to join a gang of mean, sarcastic, elitist individuals?
And humanists can be equally inhumane towards others. I don’t think the solution to this problem is merely “become a humanist”. I feel that the British Humanist Association is an ethical, empathetic and understanding organisation, but I have also met BHA members who deride religious people. This is not the BHA’s fault; however, I would like them to do more to encourage their membership and distinguished members to embody humanist values when interacting with people of all faiths.
Non-believers should also remember that belonging to a religion is often to do with family, ethnicity and community. Accordingly, leaving a religion or speaking out against it often means hurting loved ones and damaging relationships. To suggest that it is always more simple than this is misguided.
Yes, I’m aware that, at its very worst, religion is full of bigotry, misogyny, homophobia and hatred. It seeks to curtail others’ freedoms, dictate who others can love and marry, prevent women from wearing what they want and doing what they want. But heaping hatred upon religious people will get us nowhere. Meeting them with love will break down more doors. Prefacing your thoughts with, "I don’t think you’re right, but I respect your right to think that. This is how I see things," is more likely to lead to calm and constructive debate.
I would also caution atheists against seeing groups of people in black and white terms. My Muslim friends, such as the journalist Urmee Khan, are as liberal as I am, and very much in favour of equal rights for everyone. (And yes: it is perfectly OK to have religious friends.) Victoria Coren Mitchell is one of the smartest people I know, and she believes in God. Likewise, just because other atheists hold the same (lack of) belief, it doesn’t make them right about everything, or mean their approach to other humans is commendable, however famous or respected they may be.
There’s a quip often quoted by atheists: a militant Christian shoots an abortion doctor, a militant Islamist detonates a bomb, a militant atheist writes a book. This may be true, and yet the “book” in question is often so full of unpleasant barbs and wounding prejudice that most shy away from reading it. We atheists can write whatever we like in our books. We tend to be eloquent writers, too. We have the power to change the world. Why not fill our books with kindness?
As part of her new campaign Give One Thing, Ariane Sherine has edited a free e-book, Give: How to Be Happy. You can download it from the campaign website.