It seems that all the PR work by Dawkins, Hitchens, PZ Myers, Harris et al., is still not fully driving home the message of what atheism is and what atheism means. Part of me feels that, for all the good intentions in the world this is something they will never achieve, and a small part of me feels that “organised” atheism is seriously a step in the wrong direction.
At its most basic level, being an atheist implies nothing about a persons intelligence, rationality, political leaning, attitude towards others, scientific literacy, education (and so on). All being an atheist means is the person does not believe in gods. Nothing else. Al Kafir Akbar is a recent example of an atheist who is not rational, intelligent or scientifically literate (and I dread to think what his political leaning is… 🙂 ). Campaigns such as the “Scarlet A” and “Brights” are, IMHO of course, eventually doomed to failure as the differences between any two atheists start to far outweigh their single shared characteristic. In the past people have mooted ideas such as atheists becoming “politicised,” will such a thing ever work? Would you, for example, vote for a raving right / left (depending on your own orientation) lunatic simply based on his atheism?
For me, the worrying thing about all this – along with the growing sycophancy which surrounds the more prominent atheists (Dawkins lost a bit of support when he dropped a clanger and used the term “Jewish,” but the others still get the hero worship…) – is that it starts to scream “religion.” I am sure everyone remembers election campaigns where one church or another pledges the support of its followers to Politician X because of his beliefs, as soon as the prominent atheists pledge their support (and the support of their
sycophants, followers, readers) to a politician because s/he is an atheist the final difference will be gone [*].
In recent months, the furore over the the Scarlet A struck cynical old me as if people were starting to demand an atheist doctrine which was going to be laid down by the high priest (pontifex maximus? We all know where that took us…). People who disagreed with PZ Myers over the “A” for example, were savaged (online, rather than a visit to the lion enclosure) and for one reason or another, large numbers of atheists have fallen in line and display the A on their sites. Now, I must stress, I do not think this is a bad thing in general. If you want to put an A on your site to denote you are an atheist, great. I think it is really cool. I am concerned about the process which brought this about though.
Reading through the ever entertaining times online today, I came across an article by “Dolan Cummings” in the “Battle for Ideas” section. Titled “Count me out of atheism’s creed,” this article expresses some of the points of view I am trying to make, but mostly in a more readable manner… I found this bit quite relevant: (emphasis mine)
From attempts to popularise the term â€˜brightâ€™ as a positive identity to calls for atheists to be included on the roster of BBC Radio 4â€™s â€˜Thought for the Dayâ€™, it seems that some want to establish atheism as an alternative, non-religious camp for people to belong to. But atheism itself ought to be the least interesting thing about atheists, who surely have various and often conflicting beliefs and passions of their own.
Everyone who writes for this blog is an atheist, yet Heather and I have (at times) viewpoints which are at polar opposites. Calling us “atheists” with an implied commonality of purpose seems to gloss over that. If you search around the various atheist blogs, there are mountains of interesting, entertaining and educational blogs – all written by atheists. There are also lots (sadly too many on the blogroll now) of blogs which are little more than people shouting “I am an atheist” over and over.
For a long time people (famous or otherwise) have been trying to get the unthinking masses to realise that atheism is not a religion, chanting is as a mantra sets that task back considerably. If people want to challenge irrational belief then it needs to be done with logic and reason, not with formulating a “counter-church” for people to rally around. Take this idiotic comment on the Dolan Cummings’ article:
Atheism is not non-belief – it’s active faith in the non-existence of God – an unprovable hypothesis. Atheism is just another religion. Richard, Colchester, UK
Pure stupidity. Sadly, as atheism becomes more of an “active” process, people may start to think this even more.
Before I finish, I think I should stress I am not a supporter of the quisling atheists who seem to think religion should be tolerated and pandered to. Religion (any) does not deserve special status or special treatment. Irrational idiocy should be challenged at every juncture. I love to read Sam Harris, Pharyngula, Dawkins et al. I agree with an awful lot of what they have to say. However, there is no holy doctrine of atheism and I do reserve the right to disagree with the prominent spokespersons when they are (IMHO) wrong.
The greatest challenge for atheism is learning how to “cure” people of religion, without becoming a religion. Are people up to that task yet?
* I am more than aware that the chances of a prominent public figure in either the US or UK coming out as an atheist is close to zero at this time, the future may be different. Also, rather than the politician being an atheist per se, s/he could simply espouse atheist-friendly policies.