January 23, 2011

British Atheism

Sometimes I have a moment of reflection about how I tend to make a lot of commentary on theism and religion and wonder why I feel so compelled to do so.

For in the UK, the issue of God's existence and what she actually wants if she does existent, barely seems to break the fabric of society at all. Even when people do manage to get their knickers in a twist, like the Daily Mail readers who followed Shirley Chappell's plight to be allowed to wear a crucifix chain in her nursing job, they don't care any further than tutting over their breakfast cereal.

Unlike in America, where huge groups of people can father together under one religious message, I'd be surprised if you could result find a parade of Britons who could passionately agree on their religion's stance on any social issue. And I say 'passionately' purposefully, because even when people can agree on something, they often won't regard that viewpoint as particularly important.

'Are gay marriages right with God?'; 'would god be annoyed if we clone humans?'; 'is there a heaven and hell?'. A lot of us British folk, believers or not, jusy don't care about these questions.

And I don't speak for all churches, but a lot of the ones I've been to exist more as a community and social lecture than a reinforcement of ancient dogma. Though the old stories, prayers and parables are stol recited, of course.

So, my question to myself is: why do I find out necessary to argue, commentate and satirise something that is almost negligible in my home kingdom? I may as well be talking about astrology, frankly. I haven't done the research, but the belief system around astrology seems pretty similar. "Yeah, I think its true, maybe, probably. Can we talk able something else?"

Firstly, the fact that the internet gives me a potentially global audience (most of our comic readers are from the theistically troubled US) means that anything I have to say on religion isn't entirely for a stagnant audience. The whole Gnu Atheism thing is really a euphemism for the re-energised social religious conflict America its going through at the moment.

Bit I would say the main reason I continue to cover religion (other than that I find it fascinating) its that the UK is in that sleepy period between the acceptance of an idea and its dismissal. Much like alternative medicines, religion is waved away wishy-washily as if it's fine to let everyone get on with it and annoying to address. We all suspect it's a bit of nonsense but best to let sleeping dogs lie than bother to think about the issue a little deeper.

Which is fine, in a way: everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. And like dormant volcanoes, the whole lot may go extinct, given time. Or, more dangerously, if we let it sit quietly it could become part of the furniture; something to be cherished, like grandma's old chez long. When that happens, you'll find people getting all protective over 'tradition' and 'custom'.

Or we could push to raise people's consciousness one last time just to make them realise how ridiculous the whole concept of theistic religion is. Something too silly to take seriously.

Also, it's really easy to make jokes and comics about God. That's another reason.


  1. CB,

    I think it's a great thing in general to scrutinise belief systems (even those strongly embedded in a culture and tradition) and argue about a) whether or not the beliefs are justified, and b) whether or not the beliefs should play a role in public affairs.

    However, I think that in general atheists in Britain would benefit from taking a different tack in at least 3 ways:

    1) I think they should use *targeted* arguments, against specific claims made by theists. As I've said before, if somebody said 'I believe in God' I'd ask them 'What God? What does he/she do? How do you think God should affect our lives?' etc.

    Take the question of 'Would god be annoyed if we cloned humans?' Now, you're right that atheists may not care about this question, but if you seriously wanted to challenge a theist's belief about the issue, surely it's useful to ask them what they think god thinks and why. At some point it usually comes down to something to do with how souls are unique, and then you can ask them what they think about identical twins, and so on.

    2) I think that atheists shouldn't attack religion as one big "silly", "ridiculous" amorphous blob of a concept. Strange though they are, religious systems differ massively, as do people's personal beliefs in god. Put it this way: how would you like it if someone criticised your belief in "ridiculous" 'Science' because of some strange argument they found in in a paper on string theory? Or because scientists e.g. made nuclear weapons? If people feel like they - and not just one part of their argument - is being attacked, they will get on the defensive or, more likely, ignore you.

    I know that you appreciate the need to attack people's beliefs instead of THEM - but I think if you ascribe some very general, amorphous belief to them and their whole community, they will take it personally.

    3) As mentioned above, for me your position has two main threads:

    a) religious belief is not rationally justified
    b) religious belief should not affect people's behaviour and influence public affairs etc.

    Now, even if (a) is right, (b) is tricky for a number of reasons. *Does* religious belief have negative effects on people's behaviour? But also, is it the case that everything we do in our lives comes from the result of some rationally justified belief? It's a very difficult area, but I doubt the answer to this would be an unequivocal 'Yes'.

    Now, my question 'Does religious belief have a negative affect on behaviour?' is a confused question because, again, it's not specific enough. Which religious belief, and what behaviour? It is perfectly conceivable that people hold religious beliefs and have 'acceptable' (or even admirable) behaviour - in fact we all know Christians, for example, who lead very decent lives.

    So again it's a case of turning "religion is bad" into "religious belief X has to be challenged because it leads to behaviour Y."

    So in general: I think a lot of British atheists have a good agenda, but that they should be more patient and specific in their arguments.


  2. Hey Joe,

    While you say a lot of stuff I don't disagree with, I'm not entirey sure a lot of is it relevant to the post I wrote.

    I may not have communicated myself well as I wrote it on my phone in bed but my point was simply that in the UK, theists (not atheists) don't care too much about the God questions so why should activist atheists care too much about kicking up a fuss in Britain? My conclusion was, broadly speaking, kick it while it's down so we don't get the resurgance seen in the US.

    I wasn't really that concerned in this instance over how atheists SHOULD interact with religion/theistic position.



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