Monday, June 18, 2007

Humanists: stand up and be counted

Atheists: stand up and be counted

Recently on these very pages, Theo Hobson called me pretentious and cowardly. It was not directed personally, but to all atheists, and particularly to those he describes as "militant".

One of those so-called "militants", AC Grayling, a BHA Vice President dealt quite adequately with Hobson's muddled and unnecessarily straw-clutching logic, and I need not add to Grayling's reply or the staggering 971 responses that the original comment generated.

But Hobson's rhetoric exemplifies a cultural position of mistrust towards atheism, that this default and rational position has negative connotations, associated with amorality and pessimism. This, of course, is nonsense. Wanting to live a life free of superstition is not cowardly, but increasingly brave under the government's burgeoning endorsement of faith. Realism is inherent in atheism, in contrast to the false promises of life eternal, and if morality simply follows a divine command, it is not moral at all.

Mercifully, although many of our politicians may be openly religious, Britain's political landscape is such that candidates do not have to be overtly religious to even stand a chance of election. There is even a cross-party Humanist Group. Compare that to the US, where in 2006 atheists were not represented in Congress at all. Perversely, the US has secularity protected by the constitution, whereas we Brits are subjects of the Defender of the Faith. But as Andrew Copson (BHA Education and Public Affairs) pointed out, the UK is moving at a menacingly creeping pace towards a government that is in thrall to religion.

The indoctrination that occurs at the ever-increasing faith schools can only promote the mistrust of atheists, and move us towards the deplorable situation in North America, where a 2006 survey revealed that atheists rank lower than "Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in 'sharing their vision of American society'."

I recently gave a talk to science students at a secondary school about the risible promotion of intelligent design and creationism as an alternative to the theory of evolution in science lessons. One of my biggest worries before delivering this lecture was not the validity of my arguments, or whether I might offend any of the faithful, but is a bunch of 17-year-olds really going to give a shit?

I was pleased and relieved to find that they did. In conversation with some of them afterwards, they revealed that creationism was indeed a topic in science and religion classes, and the (admittedly self-selecting) audience was largely opposed not only to ID, but also all forms of Biblical literalism. I made a point of asking students what they think of Richard Dawkins, and to my horror, the vast majority had not heard of him.

Now, I support Richard Dawkins in his words and his manner, which while forthright, is also polite and thoughtful, as this video of him chatting to the Bishop of Oxford shows. It is a very rare occasion for me to disagree with anything he says. But it is shocking to think that in schools atheism's most vocal defender is unknown. I can only assume that Professor Grayling and Christopher Hitchens are similarly unheard of. While this debate bats back and forth in the pages of Comment is free and in the grand halls of the Royal Society, schoolchildren are being fed government-endorsed indoctrination into religion, and conversely are not exposed to the intellectual freedom that is inherent in atheism.

I call upon atheists everywhere to stand up and be counted. Take pride in being rational. I'm a humanist and a Darwinist, but not all atheists are. There is a positive message in atheism, which is that it is a position of intellectual curiosity, and our children should not be subjected to the bullying negativity of faith schools towards the atheist. I live a full and moral life. It is untroubled by fear or deference of supernature, and I am proud of that.

1 comment:

  1. note WASPofScience Comment No. 646763 here: